Cornplanter, Can You Swim?


As a result of various land sales which they continued to make to settlers and land companies, the Senecas’ territory eventually dwindled to four, and then three, reservations in western New York. They were the Cattaraugus, close to Lake Erie south of Buffalo; the Tonawanda, slightly northeast of Buffalo; and a long, narrow strip along the Allegheny River, from present-day Vandalia, New York, to the Pennsylvania state line. This became known as the Allegany Reservation, its name evolving with a different spelling from that of the river. South of this reservation, across the Pennsylvania line, descendants of Cornplanter still dwelled on his grant, which the)1 had inherited as his heirs.∗

∗The Seneccas also own, hut do not inhabit, a small reservation of sonic 640 acres near Oil Spring in western New York stale.

In 1848, after the Ogden Land Company had almost managed to swindle the Senecas out of their last holdings in New York by getting drunken, venal, or bogus chiefs to sign papers of sale, a group of young Senecas on the Allcgany and Cattaraugus reservations deposed the hereditary chiefs for incompétente and graft and set up a new, republican form of government on those two reservations. Calling themselves the Seneca Nation, they wrote a constitution that separated church and state; provided for a legislative council of eighteen (now sixteen) members and a president and other officers elected annually (now every two years) by all adult males (women now have the vote too); established a judiciary of three “peacemakers” for minor crimes; asked that jurisdiction over serious crimes and major lawsuits be transferred to New York state courts; and detached the two reservations from the League of the Six Nations, which had continued (and still continues, in modified form) to hold together in brotherhood the different Iroquois peoples in the United States and Canada. Today, 120 years later, the Seneca Nation still exists; it has the same form of government, the office of the president rotating every two years between the Allcgany and Cattaraugus reservations.

In the middle of the nineteenth century the Erie and Pennsylvania railroads, pushing across New York, bought rights of way from the Senecas and established a junction on the Allegany Reservation. The site grew into a village originally called Hemlock but renamed for Don Jose Salamanca Mayel, a large stockholder in the Erie Railroad. The rights-of-way purchases, plus certain leases granted by the Senecas to private citizens, were confirmed by federal statute in 1875 and 1890, when Congress gave the Allegany Reservation Senecas the right to grant thereafter ninety-nincyear leases to all white homeowners and businesses in Salamanca and in four other white towns established on the reservation. Hie leases brought ridiculously small returns to the Indians (even today the entire city of Salamanca, with a population of a little more than 9,000, pays the Indians a total of only about S 16,000 a year in rent), but all the leases will lie renegotiated by 1991, and the new rents will unquestionably be higher.

As the years rolled on, the different Iroquois peoples in New York, surrounded by a sea of whites, were all but forgotten. Living quietly on their reservations, they continued to hunt, fish, and farm, educate their children, and in many cases take jobs in the white man’s world. A large number of Allegany Senecas worked in furniture factories or for the railroads in Salamanca. Others followed a path pioneered by the Mohawks and became structural steelworkers, travelling to distant cities for periods of time to help build bridges and skyscrapers. While most of the Iroquois became Christians, many continued to observe tiie beliefs and practices of Handsome Lake, conducting an annual cycle of ceremonies. These were held in Longhouses, rectangular frame buildings which served as both social and religious centers, as well as meeting places, for the Handsome Lake followers. But even the Christians, still holding themselves apart from the whites around them, continued to have pride in their Indian heritage, and it was said that every Iroquois still had “one foot in the Longhouse.”

In the years after World War II, several of the Six Nations were beset by sudden new threats to their reservations. In 1954, when the St. Lawrence Seaway was under construction, its builders wanted to place some of their facilities on the Si. Régis Reservation belonging to lhe Mohawks. The needed land was condemned, and though lhe Indians received $100,000 in compensation, they were left with the uneasy feeling that one day their enure reservation could be taken from them.

Three years later the Tuscaroras, whose reservation lies near Niagara Falls, were treated even more highhandedly by Robert Moses, chairman of the New York Power Authority. Part of his plan for the giant Niagara Power Project was a pump-storage reservoir to be located on the Tuscaroras’ reservation. Their resistance to his original demand for 1,300 acres forced him to scale the reservoir down to 550 acres and to pay the Tuscaroras $88(,ooo for the land, plus the costs of relocating die nine Indian families who were living on it.

Considering the amount of land and the number of Indian families involved, however, none of these incursions matched the assault which the army engineers made on the Senecas’ Allegany Reservation and the Cornplanter grant.